Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Breakthrough at Tiffany's. (Or, my Tiffany epiphany.) Finale.

Read Part 1.
Read Part 2.
Read Part 3.

I'm no economist—I don't even play one on TV—but it strikes me that this curious notion, that value is something altogether apart from function, is bankrupting America; certainly it's a major factor in our latter-day collapse.

To get back on the right track, we need to revert to the idea that the most valuable things are those that have the most significant uses—and making your neighbor green with envy is not a significant use. We ought co
ntinually ask ourselves: Does this thing that I'm about to buy actually do anything? Or does it just make me feel good to own? In this framework, a toaster is more valuable than a silver pendant—any silver pendant, even one veritably encrusted with diamonds.

"But Steve...do you want to take away human striving?"

Striving for what? To have a piece of shiny metal dangling from your neck? To drive a car whose capabilities are such that it
can only be enjoyed by being driven illegally?

To be clear: This is not an argument for why we should always err on the side of cheap. What I am saying is that we sh
ould at least have in mind the sorts of thoughts I'm voicing in this series of posts as we go about our conspicuously consuming lives. Think of everything you bought this past week. How many items or services were there that you would never have bought at all, if considerations extrinsic to function were not at least partly the motive force behind the purchase? This may make some of you want to reach through your internet connection and throttle me, but did you buy the can of Green Giant peas @ 79 cents or your local grocery's house brand @ 39 cents? If you went the Green Giant route, do you realize that's a difference of over 100 percent—and that if we applied the same ratios to car buying, it would be the difference between paying $25,000 and $50,000 for the very same Altima mentioned earlier? Making matters worse, if you really had to have the Green Giant peas, did you buy them at a big-box grocery like Sam's Club? Or do you prefer to sashay down the plant-lined aisles of an upscale retailer like Wegmans, where you'd likely have to tack on an additional 10 cents per can? (On a comparison basis, that puts the cost of our Altima above $57,000.) It's vanity tax on top of vanity tax, right on down the line.

How 'bout you bottled water fans. Did you really need to pay $11 or $12 a gall
on—four or five times the cost of gas, which many of us bemoan daily—to drink something that runs freely from your tap? OK, not quite freely, but here's an interesting site that calculates what we might call the "Evian Effect": the annual economics of a preference for bottled water. For that matter, not only do we buy bottled waters, but we make sure to buy "the right" bottled waters, some of them at per-ounce prices more befitting a nice Chateau de Crain. (The photo above depicts Fillico water: $100 a bottle.) We do this despite the fact that (1) there is no meaningful proof that bottled water is superior to tap water, (2) most bottled water companies gravely mislead consumers about the origins of their products, and (3) in spot testing, several brands have been found to contain unacceptable levels of particulate matter as well as benzene and other carcinogens. (Apropos of which, if you're an aquaphile and you've never seen Penn & Teller's take on bottled water—part of their hilarious Showtime series, Bullshit—you need to get hold of a copy. Listen and learn.) Then there's that whole environmental thing.

Here's an interesting exercise: Sit down and take a stab at reckoning how much less you might spend on everything you buy, were it not for the trickle-down effects of these aggregated vanity taxes. Think about what else we might be able to fix—in your own lives; in society—were it not for the sums we spend as described herein. Might that not be a better way of approaching genuine self-help?

Such thoughtful, responsible consumption would pay dividends across the landscape of consumer culture. And they'd help insulate America against the house-of-cards collapses we've witnessed over the past few years. Collectively we'd have more money in the bank. We'd encourage the growth of industries that actually make things, useful things, better things (which is to say, more useful versions of existing things), things that—thanks to the added strength of the U.S. dollar almost sure to result from higher savings and lower credit reliance—could actually be exported successfully. And I submit that we'd be happier in the bargain, less worried about keeping up, more focused on enjoying the best things in life, which have always been, and remain, free.


A footnote
—and not for the faint of heart. (Women especially be warned.) One other interesting thing about Tiffany is that they charge $100 for a bottle of perfume that, to my nose, smells exactly like the scent-strips they put on sanitary pads to hide the (presumably more objectionable) menstrual odor beneath. Back in the day, this was how I always knew when my two older sisters had their period: I'd smell that telltale fragrance around the house. Today it's how I know when a woman is wearing Tiffany. I kid you not. I've compared notes with other men (of my generation) and found that not a few agree with me; they may not always know the name of the perfume in question, but they'll talk about "that women's cologne that smells like sanitary pads." Horrifying but true, gals. Chew on that a while, as it were.


Anonymous said...


There may be a self-imposed vanity tax in buying upscale brands which offer overpriced products with no more utility, but a bigger problem is the 100% duplicate consumption tax. The duplicate consumption tax is when a consumer buys an item even - even a generic, low-priced item, even though they already have more of those items then they could possibly use. A woman's 40th pair of shoes; my brother's 18th bottle of hot sauce; my neighbor's 15th bottle of car wax/polish.

What ever happened to buying a product and using it until it was worn out? My brother (with the hot sauce) buys a new digital camera every year - most people just buy the memory cards. Closets can't be big enough these days; ditto garages. In my neighborhood, the cars sit outside because the garages are full of cheap crap which never should have been purchased. What percentage of purchases at any mall in America are for items they people already have? Millions of people are in deep credit card debt because they are buying not expensive things, but items just for the thrill of the transaction. From little kids with way too many cheap, crappy toys, to old ladies with a bazillion ceramic figurines, we are a culture inundated with cheap unnecessary crap.

Oh, thanks for spilling the beans on the "Eau de rousse visiteur" secret. Are you trying to get your man card revoked by letting women in on our secrets??? Women never knew about this one - until now.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: I agree on many of your points. As to my "man card," it was revoked a long time ago...if I ever had one.

Chad Hogg said...

I think the Green Giant peas hits on a completely different idea. Certainly people are not buying expensive peas to "make their neighbor green with envy"; no one knows or cares about the brand of peas that you buy. I would guess that what is going on here is the general assumption that if something costs more, it must be of higher quality. Or maybe Green Giant peas really are better. There are many groceries for which I will buy the generic brand, but there is no ketchup but Heinz.

Anonymous said...

Well said!

Cosmic Connie said...

Ouch! I always liked Tiffany fragrance, though I have no use for Tiffany bling. Guess I'll have to re-think my fragrance choices. In any case, my very favorite fragrance is an oldie but goodie, Estee by Estee Lauder. First introduced to the world in 1968, it's simple and sweet (but not too sweet). Come to think of it, though, it sort of smells like Johnson's Baby Lotion...

But anyway. Regarding high-end consumption, I have to admit this July 2009 piece by personal development blogger Steve Pavlina is one of the more thoughtful arguments I’ve seen for spending the extra bucks...

…but in the end, it still seems very much like a rationalization, particularly considering that Pavlina is very much a part of the New-Wage/spiritual-materialism culture.

(Not to mention that he’s now a part of the "polyamorous" crowd, but that’s a whole other subject.)

Debbie said...

I've enjoyed this set of posts Steve. Thank you.

I'm definitely a function-over-form type of person, mostly because I hate having a lot of "stuff" in my house. I don't own a lot of jewellrey, and what I do own has a history behind it. You will never find a rice steamer, or a garlic peeler, or an electric juicer in my house. (Sorry, kitchen is what I know best) If it only has one function, it's gone.

I didn't always used to be like this, I was definitely a consumer's consumer, if you will. And I can't pinpoint the moment when my mindset changed. Sometime around when I had children and decided their future was more important than having multiple pairs of black heels. We have since spent the last 4-odd years slowly ridding our house of unused "crap". Things we no longer use, or have never used (wedding gifts still in boxes).

However, I am a quality-first person, and sometimes that does mean paying more. I also am a big believer that my time is worth something. That bag of green peas may be cheaper at Sam's Club (which I'm guessing is like Costco?), but it's a 3 hour trip, not including driving, because a) the store's so bloody big, and b) the line-ups are so bloody long. And studies have shown that the longer you spend in a grocery store (beyond 30 minutes) the more you spend. I will happily go to my local Co-Op, pay a little more for the peas, be in and out in no time flat, and go home and play with my kids. And I'm not coming home with that impulse television purchase (what Hubs calls the "Costco Breakdown").

As for the generic vs. Green Giant, I'll try the generic once. If they're good, I'll continue to buy them. If not, I'll go to the next level up. Sometimes generic brand is just as good, but sometimes it's not.

I know not everyone thinks the way I do. I think more people are now than before though, but probably not enough. There are still a lot of people living way beyond their means, trying to appear that they are wealthy.

Calgary is still suffering from affluenza. Even through the layoffs, wage cuts, hourly rollbacks, etc., a house sold her for over $10million last month, spanky condos, specialty food stores and expensive restaurants are popping up all over the revitalized inner city, and Holt Renfrew (the high-end designer department store, think Gucci, Chanel, Dior, etc. all under one roof) just opened a newly renovated, 4 storey space. For a Canadian city that just recently swept past the 1 million mark, that's pretty amazing.

Though-provoking. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you are gross. Do you know that?

Steve Salerno said...

Debbie: Thank you for being here to consume my posts. And the best thing is...they're free! (Though it's debatable whether they have a function.)

LizaJane said...

No shades of gray with you, Steve! And have you never bought something because the quality was better ... even if another, cheaper model provided the same "use." Sometimes (no, not always -- you have to be a savvy shopper) if you pay a little more, you get a lot more as far as value, durability, and enjoyment. You seem to be promoting a "penny-wise, pound-foolish" approach, across-the-board. As if it's NEVER the case that the more expensive item IS (and not just from an egoistic standpoint) better! Remember the Coach purse that lasts 30+ years and looks brand new? How many Walmart purses would fall apart in the same timespan? Now, if you're someone who "needs a new one" every year, the fact that something is durable is lost on you. But for those of us who prefer "classic" to "trendy," sometimes paying more up front IS the wiser use of money.

As for food and drugs (the legal sort) I always try the generic. If it's "good enough," it become the standard. Many times, Trader Joe's outdoes the original (their "Wheat Thins" are great). But sometimes, it's not even close. Like Chad, I've found that there are a few items for which generic/store brands just won't do -- so it's the national brand with a coupon, whenever possible. Have you ever tasted a generic Oreo?

As far as your recognizing the scent of sanitary pads, it just shows how successful advertising can be. Any doctor knows that scented "feminine products" are no-nos, healthwise, on several levels. "Hey, let's tell women they stink and sell another product." Regular bathing is a far better solution to that potential problem.

Lots of perfumes out there stink -- price isn't even a factor. Thing is, even the best perfume* is changed by an individual wearer's body chemistry. What smells like Kotex on one lady, may smell wonderful on her friend. So Cosmic Connie, before you pour your Tiffany down the drain, put some on, wait a couple hours, then ask a trusted friend to give you a sniff. You might smell yummy.

* Beyond the universally repulsive smells of decay and rot (and tar), people have different notions of what smells good -- I loathe all Estee Lauder fragrances, which make me nauseated within seconds. But lots of folks really love them.

Steve Salerno said...

LJ: I hear where you're coming from. And I never said I was immune. It's a cultural thing; an addiction, a way of conceptualizing our buying habits. We all need remediation, I think. That's how I see it anyway.

I agree with you wholeheartedly re the scent thing--and just so you know, I've blogged quite honestly and intimately about my feelings in that area. Suffice it to say I hate what the media have done to women in the name of "empowering" them.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Suffice it to say I hate what the media have done to women in the name of "empowering" them."

Just as sad are those who react to the manipulation by becoming manipulators themselves. Guys do it too, of course. I've developed a high level of intolerance for passive-aggressive, snide little put-downs, which are generally defended with a "cute" smile and wink or an, "I was just pulling your chain, man." The sanitary pads smell great by comparison, IMO.

Karl said...

One of the growth industries around the world is self-storage. When your closets, basement and garage is overflowing with stuff you just purchase space so you can go on hoarding.

Steve Salerno said...

Karl: Welcome aboard. Excellent point: We even need "vanity space" to store the merchandise for which we paid all those vanity taxes.

Cosmic Connie said...

Ron wrote:
"I've developed a high level of intolerance for passive-aggressive, snide little put-downs...The sanitary pads smell great by comparison, IMO."

LOL. I thought I detected a whiff of passive-aggression around here, but it's kind of hard to tell over the nauseating perfume I wear. :-)

But hey, I dish out great heaping helpings of snark, so I guess it's going to get slung back at me occasionally, even if it seems gratuitous. Maybe I've offended this person with some of my previous posts or comments.

By the way, Steve, I've really enjoyed this series. I think you do need to develop it into a book.

Steve Salerno said...

I think you do need to develop it into a book.

Now...that hurts.

Cosmic Connie said...

No hurt intended, Steve. (You can always self-publish!)

Rational Thinking said...

Excellent series of posts, Steve. You got me thinking, and one aspect of this (tangentially I suppose) is the factor of built-in obsolescence. My partner and I are on our fourth washing machine in 15 years! Ditto tumble drier (except I think we're on our fifth there). My parents had one washing machine that lasted 18 years. We see to be averaging about 4 years! So one thing I'd like to see is goods that are built to last. And/or where the cost of repairs isn't more than half the cost of a replacement. Just thought I'd throw that one into the mix.

Steve Salerno said...

RT: My son, who is major internet security guy in NYC, was telling about how, some years back, in order to be "helpful" to its customers, HP built "replace toner cartridge" alerts into its toners that would sound at a predetermined point of use--regardless of whether the toner was, in fact, empty and needed replacement. As you might imagine, some customers were somewhat cynical when the news came out.

I'm also investigating a possible scam with a computer manufacturer whose units (much like GM cars of a certain vintage) have an eerie tendency to fail in some way right after the warranty expires. And at that precise moment, owners receive via email a coupon good for a discount off a new computer. Funny coincidence, huh? Given that almost all computers nowadays are networked...makes you think, doesn't it?

Steven Sashen said...

FWIW, I just drove a Tesla. It's a 100% electric sports car that, with all the options, has a sticker price of $150k. Well, it's only $100k if you can use the current Colorado and federal tax credits. I won't get into the argument about whether it's "worth" 150k, but I will say this:

That was the most fun I've ever had behind the wheel of a car in my life.

I think everyone should drive one of these for the following reasons:

a) FUN!
b) To see what an ELECTRIC car can do.

When you experience "b", (oh, BTW, 250 miles on a 3 hour "fill up" that costs $4)... it becomes quite upsetting that Detroit makes ANY excuses for not going electric immediately.

Part of Tesla's business model is to sell expensive cars to people for whom cash isn't an issue, and use that money to finance the development of affordable electrics.

Vanity Financing?

BTW, did I mention that I've never had so much fun in a car? Or that everyone has to get in one of these? Or the fun? Did I?

(I'm still a bit giddy and shaky from the drive) ;-)

SustainableFamilies said...

You know, along the same lines, my last post was concerning pricelists for children. For CHILDREN. Did you know that a white healthy newborn can cost THIRTY THOUSAND DOLLARS more than an african american newborn? To what end? Where does that money go? How on earth is it legal to post price lists of children by race?!

Supply and demand economics has benefits, but it also has so many disturbing results including the sale of children. Which is supposedly illegal, but can be circumvented by clever lawyers and adoption workers.

If something can be sold, it will be, and at the highest price that possible can be garnered for it, no matter the worth OR the ethics of what is being sold.